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Marine Safety Bill

12.14 p.m.

Lord Donaldson of Lymington: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The Bill has come to us from another place, having been sponsored there by Dr Brian Iddon, the Member of Parliament for Bolton South East.

The overall purpose of the Bill is to increase safety at sea and to reduce the damage that can be caused by pollution from ships. We have seen all too plainly, with the sinking of the oil tanker "Prestige" off the coast of Spain late last year, the severity of the damage that can occur when such vessels get into difficulty.

Members of your Lordships' House may remember too that the United Kingdom has itself suffered some devastating oil spills. Nearly 40 years on, the name "Torrey Canyon" still conjures up images of polluted beaches and dead wildlife. The UK has suffered other large spills, the "Braer" in 1993 and the "Sea Empress" in 1996. It was the "Sea Empress" incident that led to the inquiry and report entitled the Review of Salvage and Intervention and their Command and Control, of which I had the honour of being the principal author. It introduced an entirely new system for intervention in the case of polluting or potentially polluting incidents in United Kingdom waters as well as those of the EEZ. Furthermore, I am glad to be told that it is working successfully. However, the report did identify two aspects where the legislation was inadequate and this Bill is designed to close those loopholes.

Under Section 137 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995, as amended, the Secretary of State or his representative, known by the inelegant title of SOSREP—only because we could not think of any other term which did not have undesirable overtones of one kind or another—can give directions to the owner, master or pilot of a ship, any salvor in possession of the ship and where the ship is in waters regulated or managed by a harbour authority, to the harbour master or to the harbour authority. The powers may be used to prevent or minimise pollution or the threat of pollution following a maritime accident, and to prevent or reduce a risk to safety.

However, neither the Secretary of State nor SOSREP—in practice of course it is SOSREP—can issue a direction to the riparian owners and managers of facilities such as berths, wharves and jetties to require them to make their facilities available so that action may be taken to help the vessel. This Bill makes good that deficiency. Paragraph 2 of Schedule 1 to the Bill confers a power on the Secretary of State to give directions to those in charge of land or coastal premises to make that land or certain facilities such as berths, wharves or jetties available in order to reduce or prevent the risk of pollution and any risks to safety.

This may have financial consequences, which is why the Bill required a money resolution in another place. If, by being directed by the Secretary of State or his representative to accept a stricken vessel, a facility is effectively stopped from carrying out its normal day-to-day business, then Clause 15 makes provision for

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anyone suffering loss or damage to be properly compensated by the Secretary of State. This is right and just and, furthermore, I understand that it is a necessary provision in order to comply with the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Fortunately, there are likely to be few occasions on which the power will need to be exercised, but when it is required, it will be needed very badly. However, because it is so difficult to predict how often the power will need to be exercised, it is impossible to predict with any accuracy the level of compensation involved. It would depend on the type of facility being affected, the availability of alternative facilities and, of course, how long the casualty occupied that facility. A jetty serving an oil refinery, for example, may involve far greater sums than a jetty used occasionally for leisure purposes.

However, the costs of dealing with oil spills run to many millions. In today's value, I am told that the cost of the "Torrey Canyon" spill would be 76 million. If this measure is used only once to prevent a large spill, then the savings would far outweigh any compensation involved.

The second provision of the Bill concerns fighting fires at sea. Clause 2 amends the Fire Services Act 1947 by including a provision giving fire authorities the power to recover costs they incur in fighting fires at sea outside the area of any fire authority. The fire might be on a ship, an oil rig or another structure such as a pontoon. Between 1991 and 2001, 347 fires were recorded on ships in United Kingdom territorial waters. Of these, at least 12 could have resulted in significant loss of life were it not for the assistance that fire teams were able to give after being airlifted to the scene. Such teams are specially trained; they do not consist of ordinary firefighters.

After a three-day fire on the ro-ro ferry "Kukawa" in 1997, an arbitrator, in an appeal dealing with the salvage claim, took the view that the fire service's claim to recover costs was inadmissible. This was an unfortunate decision. No one had ever raised the point before and it was a pity that it was raised on that occasion. However, the arbitrator's decision was a serious setback to fire-fighting at sea and we have now seen fire authorities revoking their declared facility status because of funding problems. We need the clause to encourage fire authorities to continue to provide this expert and life-saving service.

Another product of the Bill is to consolidate existing powers into one piece of legislation.

If the Bill is enacted it will add a powerful tool to the Secretary of State's representative when tackling a major pollution or safety maritime incident. It will give firefighters an incentive to provide help at sea and provide a useful one-volume key reference document for rapid access when quick action is needed, although the SOSREP will not need to refer to the document because it will be present in his mind. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Donaldson of Lymington.)

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12.21 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, to respond from the Front Bench on a debate about safety at sea, in which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, is the leading speaker, takes me back to my earliest days in your Lordships' House when the "Sea Empress" disaster and the possible re-opening of the "Devonshire" inquiry were both on the agenda. I remember how daunted I felt at having to take part in debates on these matters in the presence of the noble and learned Lord. While I no longer fear him, we all respect his great authority in this field.

The Bill has come to us from the House of Commons with the support of the Government and that of many Members of Parliament, including several of my honourable friends. As the noble and learned Lord said, the Bill deals with the important subject of marine safety and gives the Government the additional powers recommended by the noble and learned Lord in his review of salvage arrangements following the "Sea Empress" disaster near Milford Haven. As he said, the Bill fills a recognised gap.

The Bill also provides for the reimbursement of fire services which deal with fires at sea. Until I took an interest in the Bill I had not realised that the number of fire brigades willing to undertake the training and maintenance of services able to cope with fires at sea was reducing. That is an important aspect of the Bill.

As I have explained, my noble friend is not in his place. Nevertheless I am sure that we shall continue to support the Bill from these Benches.

12.23 p.m.

Viscount Astor: My Lords, we support the Bill. I apologise to your Lordships for not being present during the debate on the previous Bill even though my name was on the list of speakers. I attended a memorial service this morning and the speakers in that debate were rather briefer than I had imagined they would be. I apologise for missing the debate but I understand my noble friend the Opposition Chief Whip stood in for me.

After his report on the "Sea Empress" disaster at Milford Haven, the noble and learned Lord is indeed the father of the Bill. That report was published in 1999 and so, in government terms, to have a Bill in 2003 is rather rapid progress.

Apart from one small complaint I have absolutely no criticism of the Bill. The noble and learned Lord mentioned the word "SOSREP". It is a pity that we invent such extraordinary acronyms that we shall have to remember in the future.

As the noble and learned Lord said, the Bill fills a need. However, we have an obligation to press the Minister on the issue of funding. The Bill quite rightly gives the fire services the ability to charge for attending fires at sea, but in order to do that satisfactorily they have to have the training and the necessary equipment in their possession. This means that they will have to spend money to equip themselves to fight marine fires—and that money will have to be spent whether or

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not there is a fire—and we know that the funding the fire services receive for fighting marine fires has been cut.

If this is going to work, it is important that the Minister tells the House what guidance the Government are giving to the fire services in various locations on the levels of equipment they should maintain to deal with disasters. There is no point in fire authorities being allowed to charge for their services if they do not have the equipment to deal with incidents. I hope that the Minister will be able to answer that point.

We support the Bill and will encourage its passage through the House.

12.26 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, as has already been said, the Government support the Bill. We congratulate the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, on introducing it.

The United Kingdom has 10,000 miles of coastline. We are adjacent to one of the busiest sea lanes in the world— there are some 400 vessel movements per day through the Dover straits—so we have to make maritime safety and the prevention of pollution among our top priorities.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, referred to the "Torrey Canyon", the "Braer" and the "Sea Empress" incidents—which were very serious indeed—and outlined the Bill's provisions in detail, so I do not need to go into that again.

At present the powers of SOSREP are significantly lacking in that a damaged vessel may be directed into a port area, but if the private owners of the facility refuse to help offload the vessel, or perhaps bring it alongside so that a fire could be fought from shore, the risk presented by the casualty will remain. Indeed, such delays could allow precious time to be wasted and the situation to get worse. This would add risk to the coast and the community.

I understand that there have been two examples of vessels being refused access to port facilities during the past three years. One of these involved the MT "Framness". Last July she was refused access to her privately owned discharge facility within the Port of Milford Haven when it became known that had her engines been stopped they may have needed repairs before they could have been restarted. In this condition she was returned to sea, in worsening weather, presenting a risk of becoming a casualty with resulting massive pollution. SOSREP was not able to remedy this situation. He had to rely on his powers to require tug support to be provided to the vessel until repairs could be effected.

In another case the vessel "Dole America" was holed when she struck the Nab Tower, which is a navigational aid—and not a small one—off Southampton in the early hours of 7th November 1999. There was a 13 metre gash below the water level on her starboard side. The vessel was grounded and subsequently refloated before being taken into the Port of Southampton, where the intention was to place

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the casualty into an available, but privately-owned, dry dock so that temporary repairs could be undertaken and the vessel could be removed to the continent for full repair.

Permission to use the facilities at commercial rates had been agreed in advance of the refloating but was retracted as the vessel entered port. This could have been for reasons of commercial gain. However, the result was that the ship had to be held alongside a quay, supported at all times by a crane, while the best repairs possible could be completed before the vessel was taken to Portsmouth for further securing before being allowed back to sea. The effect of the private owner's refusal of facilities was that a vessel offering potential risk to safety and the port environment was held against a commercial berth for an extended period of time. We also know of a number of incidents where access to private facilities was given but could just as easily have been withheld. These safety matters are reserved and this provision shall apply across the United Kingdom.

The second measure concerns maritime firefighting. I was surprised to learn, as the House will be, that only 10 firefighting authorities provide any sort of maritime service. Indeed, there are only two between Essex and the extreme north of Scotland—Lincolnshire and Humberside. The position on the west coast is not much better.

In 1997, some 20 firefighting authorities provided a marine service. I cannot say that I have evidence that this 50 per cent reduction was entirely due to cost, but I suspect it was a principal factor. However, I have to give the lie to what the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, said about funding. There has been no cut in firefighters' funding. He will recognise that the Bill does not make it a duty for firefighters to work at sea, but it removes the burden of cost that is likely to make it more likely that more authorities will withdraw this service. An article in the May edition of the magazine for NUMAST members, the Telegraph, showed that a recent analysis of the costs of 68 shipboard fires added up to some 37 million—an average of 550,000 per incident. So we are not making it compulsory but we are removing a major disincentive.

I take the point of the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, that to fight fires you have to have some basic training and equipment. However, my understanding is that it is more training than equipment, and there is not so much capital cost involved in being prepared to fight fires. We are giving additional encouragement to firefighting authorities to undertake the training and the capital expenditure that is required on the basis that they will now, reversing the arbitrator's decision, be able to recover the cost from individual incidents.

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